It’s after the end of the world (again and again and again). This time the sweet one-two punch of World War III and an ecological catastrophe has turned our blue planet brown, so humanity has fled underground. There our descendants dwell in what looks surprisingly like (often pretty foggy) warehouse sets, suffer from a lack of decent lighting that can only cause depression and off-screen monologues, and are dominated by various competing religious cults and sects.
Our hero of the evening, one properly action-movie-monikered guy known as Boris Dakota (C. Thomas Howell) works as a Shepherd – an enforcer/killer – for Miles (Roddy Piper), whose religion seems to be what happens when an Evangelical TV preacher goes worse. Miles’s guys (and it’s only guys) seem to be – as far as I parse the intensely vague world building of the film – one of the big two crazy cults in the underground world. Right now, Miles’s guys are living in a truce with the other big cult, the skimpy leather-clad girls of Lilith (Heidi von Palleske), keeping the apocalypse after the apocalypse at bay by not killing each other in public. Or something.
For his part Dakota isn’t much of a believer in anything anymore, since he suffers from the classical action hero traumatic past of a murdered wife and son, and now spends the time in which he isn’t killing people for Miles or his old friend Lyndon (Mackenzie Gray) growling off-screen monologues about how much humanity sucks, and watching virtual low-res memories and screen savers of his family on what looks suspiciously like sun glasses, an awesome invention the film never even bothers to name but that will have excellent uses when it comes to hurting the audience’s eyes, exposition, and random stuff.
However, when Dakota is assigned a new – and as he hopes and Miles will make sure, last – target, something you might at first confuse with a plot surfaces, for said target, one Sophia (Marina Anderson) just happens to have a son right of the age Dakota’s kid was when he was murdered. So obviously, Dakota saves Sophia and the child from other assassins instead of killing her and attempts to take on the role of their protector. At first, Sophia isn’t all too keen on Dakota, but after enough lackluster attacks on them, she’ll surely come around.
As you might suspect after this meandering synopsis of not much of a plot, if you go looking into this Roger Corman production directed by Peter Hayman expecting much of an actual movie as people generally understand the term, you might be a mite disappointed. The plot – such as it is – is really just a series of lamely reproduced clichés presented with all the enthusiasm and coherence of a late period Santo movie (which, if you don’t know your lucha cinema, means none whatsoever), with character actions and motivations that often don’t even make sense in the very broad interpretation of the word we use when talking about post-apocalyptic action cinema, underground (aka “we can’t afford to shoot outside, and Bronson Canyon’s too far away”) division. I, at least, can make neither heads nor tails out of the whole conspiracy angle between Miles and Lilith’s cults. If indeed there even is such an angle. I think it says everything about the quality of the writing here I’m not sure either way. Or, to take another example, why exactly does Lyndon act as he does in the final scenes? How the hell should the script know.
Obviously, things like suspense or excitement are right out in Shepherd, particularly since the action scenes are of the just barely competent type that neither wants to be creative nor exciting and just hovers around words like “there”. And nope, we don’t even get to see a titanic throw-down between Howell and Piper, which is probably for the better seeing how slow Howell moves.
However, while Shepherd is barely watchable as a serious piece of post-apocalyptic action film, it is a pretty brilliant lump of utter, inexplicable nonsense, and what creativity was involved behind the camera was clearly concentrated on a) providing various actors with as many opportunities for scenery chewing as possible, and b) adding absolutely pointless yet awesome nonsense/stuff/random insanity to as many scenes as possible. So Shepherd gifts us with great moments in cinema like Roddy Piper living in his own memory glasses world where he does the whole sub-Jesus thing, bare-chested and carrying around a humongous crucifix on his back. Roddy also dreams of hitting people with one of those crosses-on-a-stick (that’s the technical term, right, religious readers?) bishops and the like carry around, actually likes to kick his henchmen when they are down, and spends most of his screen time angrily ranting and raving in sentences that can’t be meant to make sense. Truly, that part of the film is a thing to behold. And while Howell didn’t get the message about the scenery chewing beyond “do a manly growly voice, dude”, von Palleske and Lyndon in particular really join in the fun with gusto.
Other joys here are the random appearance of a cannibalistic punk (this is not a film who could afford a gang of them, sorry) who leads our hero back to the boy with his awesome power of smelling little boys (seriously), a just as random Roddy Piper crucifixion, and last but not least a cameo by good old David Carradine.
Carradine is not a man to be trifled with in the finding nothing undignified sweepstakes, so his character is only listed as “Ventriloquist”. And indeed, David is one, and because this film is very special, David Carradine isn’t just a ventriloquist but has his star turn here drugging C. Thomas Howell, then straddling him while good old C. Thomas dreams of having sex with a woman quite clearly not David Carradine, and proceeding to strangle Howell with his ventriloquist’s doll. A doll, that, for reasons I don’t even want to think about, also seems to be trans.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, should really answer anyone’s questions about whether Shepherd is worth watching. Yes, it is.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?